In recent years we have been hit with a wave of documentaries that in my opinion have had an incredibly damaging effect on people’s idea of justice. How we perceive people accused of crimes has always been flexible, ebbing and flowing due to not only the facts on offer but also what other people are saying about it. This has only gotten worse in the age of the True Crime documentary. Shows like Making a Murderer, Serial and The Jinx have turned regular viewers into amateur detectives, intent on making these crimes make sense to them, filling in the gaps as they go with little or no desire to learn the truth. Thank god American Vandal exists to put us in our place and let us know, in the most outlandish way possible, that we don’t know shit.
Season 2 of American Vandal follows Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alverez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), two amateur documentarians investigating a string of crimes occurring at St Bernadine’s Catholic School. When someone taints the cafeteria lemonade with laxatives, the school and the student are scarred by the events. When two more crap related crimes happen, a student reaches out to Peter and Sam to investigate.
What might sound like a very similar premise to Vandal’s critically praised first series is anything but a rehash as the creators seem to have perfected their way of hiding very real issues within a seemingly childish idea. While I’m not knocking the saga of Dylan Maxwell and the dick graffiti, there was always a feeling during that season that any point the show was trying to make was secondary to the comedy. While season 2 wants you to laugh it also grips you in a way the first never could.
Not only are the characters here stronger but they feel like real teenagers. The problems they have are understandable and their hidden fears are more dynamically revealed. If anything the show has developed a subtlety by masking a story about today’s youth and their obsession with being seen due to an online culture that encourages visibility, behind a mask of actual shit. It’s a daring play as the premise is just plain dumb. A show that is understandably childish still has the DNA of a true crime documentary, enough to ask the question, are True Crime shows worth watching or even considering analytically.
While Peter and Sam seek the truth, they are clearly pulled in different directions due to their own biases. The series builds its central mystery around a mountain of circumstantial evidence and the two latch onto certain leads much like a viewer would and uses it to justify some very damaging opinions about their suspect pool. The idea that opinion is more important than actual facts is never far from the shows writers minds as seemingly incontrovertible proof is proven to be wishful thinking on more than one occasion. The twists and turns are ones we are driven towards, directed to by Peter and Sam, not really made on our own. The series is manipulative because, as they point out on multiple occasions, that is their stock-in-trade.
Coming off a strong opening, the mystery of who the criminal is, a man who calls himself The Turd Burglar, is one that not only feels more compelling than the first go around but it feels more developed. The series is populated by well-rounded characters from basketball star DeMarcus (Melvin Gregg), rich kid Jenna (Kiah Stern) and unfortunate scapegoat Kevin (Travis Tope). The suspect pool is full of people with things to hide but also reasons to empathise with them. These are imperfect kids that haven’t learnt how to cope with life.
The surprise here was that the fact this story has an actual ending. While seeking answers to who committed the crime in the first series, they never got conclusive proof of who drew over the teachers cars. While it made for a compelling ending that attacked the central conceit of True Crime shows and that we need to take what we are told with a grain of salt. However here there is an answer, the Turd Burglar is revealed in spectacular fashion and it ends up leaving more questions and problems to ponder. Reaching the end with an answer oddly feels emptier than leaving your options open.
Speaking of the conclusion, Vandal has an ability to mess with its own form in favour of making a point but most viewers will be watching for the shows comedic elements. The problem with this is that the final flurry of episodes transitions the show into a straight drama. The final two episodes in particular jettison any sense of comedy as the true nature of the crime is revealed and the horrific nature of how this community has been abused rears its ugly head. It’s all smartly done but the lack of any humour drags down the final instalments down as it forces viewers to face their own inadequacies.
While its easy to appreciate, Vandal season two is an exercise in changing societal programming. While we spend six episodes laughing at the expense of these characters, something Sam even joins in with at times, the final two episodes made me surprisingly guilty. The show revels in reminding us that there are no victim-less crimes. While we enjoy ourselves at others expense we are dragged down for judging these characters in the end. This might be a way the show acknowledges how we prejudge people based on how they come across but all it really does is point out our hidden prejudices and make us feel bad about them.
However if we are forced to eat our greens once in a blue moon while enjoying ourselves the rest of the time I can live with that ratio. In the end Vandal is unbelievably smart, constructed in a way that provides constant surprises and filled with a cast of excellent performers who are smartly written. Unfortunately there will not be more of this to come but if this really is the end, it’s a strong one.